Beginner's Heart

struggleI saw this today, and flinched. Literally — a kind of internalised wince that shook me. I have been so angry lately …

There are signs from the universe (I really do believe the universe talks to us — but you do have to listen) that I need to work on this. The anger, I mean. But here’s my problem:

A dear friend sent me a short piece he’s working on, the day after the Trayvon Martin. verdict. It was about an incident from his recent past, where a director he was working with told him ‘not to bring black to it.’ How can an African American NOT bring his or her racial identity to the table? What are black Americans supposed to do with a comment like that??

And what does that comment even mean?? What kind of idiot would say that to someone??

I keep fighting this tired fight because it’s important. To me. To my friends. To members of my family. And — I humbly insist, over & over — to America. To the world.

But it takes a huge toll. And yes, sometimes I worry it’s my identity. I don’t want that to be true, but I know at least one of my own sisters has muted me on FB. She gets tired of politics.

I don’t blame her, really. I’m tired of the idiocy that masquerades as American politics as well. 🙂 And I’m struggling (a very different kind of struggle) to remember that even unkind people are sons, & daughters, & wives, & husbands. And fathers & mothers. And people I know…So it behooves me not to swear (which I do far too frequently! and just got chewed out for, professionally!). To remember I make others crazy, too.

There is more to who I am, of course, than my ongoing fightjustice definition for social justice. Still, I remember even at the tender age of 9, not long after my youngest sister was born, standing on one side of iron gates. A very young Việtamese woman — certainly not twice my age at the time — held her baby out to me, pleading w/ me to take it. To feed it. And I knew even then that life was not fair. My sister was upstairs in our villa, well-fed, clean, destined to be educated & protected. This woman’s baby had nothing. And probably never would.

Some piece of me responded then — and continues to respond — to that inequity. Later, I would stand up to bullies (sometimes w/ a broom, but you use what you have!), sometimes w/ words, sometimes w/my own two fists. I refuse to be one of those silent onlookers to life’s injustices. So maybe this ongoing battle is my identity. It certainly is what led me to engaged Buddhism.

But I want to believe it’s not the struggle that defines me so much as it is the people behind each statistic, each act of racism and moral cowardice. It’s the idiot who doesn’t understand that Ben can’t peel his race away like a wet shirt. That my niece can’t choose the way she loves, anymore than I can choose the size of my heart. It’s the unnamed men & women & children who stand mute, locked within safely distanced numbers. Each of these has a part in my struggles.

My struggle has identity, but it isn’t really mine. It’s all of ours. I hope you think so, too.


dharma wheelJuly 22nd is Dharma Day for observant Buddhists. There are three ‘jewels’ in Buddhist tradition: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha is the easy one. 🙂 Sangha is the community on the Buddhist path with you, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

Dharma‘ is commonly understood to mean the Buddha’s teachings, but it’s more than that. In Hindu faith — which is what the  Buddha was born into — it connotes your sacred duty. I like the idea that this meaning backgrounds what the Buddha taught. And that’s what we celebrate on Dharma Day: the Buddha as teacher.

It’s the first day of (or after, depending on who you ask 🙂 ) the Buddha’s enlightenment. He rises from beneath the bodhi tree and goes off looking for his former disciples, to share his new-found knowledge. Dharma Day marks that moment, when the Buddha began to teach.

Traditionally Dharma Day is spent reflecting on the Buddha’s teachings. It also begins Vassa, sometimes known as ‘Buddhist Lent,’ since many Buddhists give up eating meat, smoking, and other luxuries. Kind of a cross between Ramadan and Lent. 🙂

So I’m considering what I will do to mark the passing of Dharma Day this year. What one of the Buddha’s teachings do you find most useful? And why?



BrainInHeartThe Virginia gubernatorial candidate from the Republican party says my niece has no soul. My lovely niece, who is intellectually brilliant, wise and funny, and as kind and good as dawn. Because her partner is another woman — another lovely, talented, witty, and amazing woman — he says neither one has a soul. I won’t give his name space in this blog. I’m that angry.

This same man is trying to have certain sexual acts banned — even between married couples, in the privacy of their home. This same man argued that the Roman goddess Virtus, on the state seal, should have her bare breast covered. Really, dude? This is an issue of critical significance to the state? virginia state seal 2

So I suppose I shouldn’t be as angry as I am. The guy is obviously a few watts shy of a night light.  But in case you haven’t noticed, I don’t deal well with threats, slurs, or insults to those I love. And when you couple family with the many dear friends of mine who have equally dear same-sex partners, I’m livid.

Who does this guy think he is? Who abdicated and made him God? My understanding — and I’m reasonably well-versed in multiple wisdom traditions — is that only the Creator has jurisdiction over soul-production. And don’t souls only exit at death? NO ONE, to my knowledge, is born without a soul. And even Hitler — surely the meanest of the mean (well, maybe Stalin gets in there, and Attila the Hun) — had a soul. Whether or not he forfeited it after death…no one this side of the dirt knows.

I always wonder, when people make hateful, hurtful comments like his, if they think of their own nieces. If they think of their cousins, maybe even children they’ve known since babyhood. It’s okay, I guess — in their worlds — to say these terribly WRONG things about other people’s family members. Because there is NO family in America today who does not know well someone who is gay. And every one of these bigoted weapons of comments strikes a child: a tween struggling with why she doesn’t find the guys in her school worth giggling over. A 14-year-old boy, wondering what he has to live for in a community where he sees only hatred for who he is. A college student who suddenly wakes up to realise that his/her disinterest in the opposite sex has significance.

Wekindness‘re contemplating moving to Virginia, as my elder son, DIL, and perfect grandson will soon be living in Blacksburg. Under, possibly, the jurisdiction of this mean-spirited troll. (I can think of far more precise terms — none suitable for print.) How on earth did this country of freedom, of men & women who fled persecution from governments, become a place where a man like this can represent an entire political party in a state like Virginia? I don’t get it.

I’m trying to remember that unkind people — people who can say evil, hurtful, scarring things to my family, to yours, to their own — also need compassion. That such people have to live w/ their own bigotry, always the product of fear. I try hard to remember that.

But it’s very difficult. And sometimes? I just don’t get it.


imageWhen I recently posted a blog concerning white privilege on my FB, a long-time friend & colleague asked, “At what point do we quit beating our chests?” Here’s my answer, and a warning: it’s long. But I did cite resources! 🙂

I first read Brent Staples a few years after his seminal essay “Black Men and Public Spaces” first came out. Possibly in the late 80s, maybe as late as 1990. It was one of those pieces that you remember as a point in your life: there was before, and then there was after. Nothing was the same after I read it.

The essay is familiar to many American college students — the basic premise is that class complicates white America’s fear of black men. Had Trayvon Martin been wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase, and whistling Vivaldi, perhaps George Zimmerman wouldn’t have murdered him. Or at least that was Staples’ strategy against the ominous click click click of car window latches that President Obama spoke of. But Staples wrote his essay in 1986. I doubt it would be that simple now.

Race is a difficult topic for white America. At least most of us. The idea of white privilege even more so. There’s an enormous resistance to believing in/ recognising white privilege. Especially among the blue-collar class, who have experienced prejudice as well, in the form of classism. A man (or woman) who has had to work for everything he has doesn’t want to believe it could have/ would have been even worse had he been black or brown.As a first-generation academic, I agree that certainly it is hard enough for many whites. But the white man we’re makingimage an example of made it, he thinks, and so can anyone else who tries. Such a man is rarely interested in seeing his race as a positive factor in his success. Especially if he wasn’t successful. Being white has had no impact, he says. And he may be even more vocal if he is now a ‘self-made’ man. Witness the raging response of “I built this by myself!!”

White privilege is the assumption that you have right to walk the streets at night as who you are, even in a hoodie. That you can walk into a highway McDonald’s with 10 friends and no one will tremble in fear. (My friend Ben, who works at a historically black college, says that all buses with black athletes travelling must have 1+ whites on board to allay the fears of highway restaurants, or the bus doesn’t bother to stop. Too risky, Ben says.)

White privilege means your son will never be Amadou Diallo, shot 41 times by New York police, “just for living in [his] American skin,” as Bruce Springsteen sang. Both young men unarmed. Both yet another prompt for black American parents to have the ‘always keep your hands in sight’ talk. A discussion I have never faced with my two white sons.

Being white means my two sons will never be asked for their papers when stopped by a cop for a light out, although my older son’s brother-in-law will. And possibly, if he grows up in Oklahoma, my beloved grandson will… Although I hope that this madness gripping America fades into a gentler picture by then.

imageWhite privilege is so pervasive that like your left knee, you don’t notice it. IF you’re white. Yet, as my cousin Jean wrote in an eloquent FB post, “black men, in this country cannot escape the narrative that we as a culture have painted them in to. The narrative is that they are automatically a threat. If an unarmed, black, teenager is walking down the street, then they must be a threat. They cannot belong there; we as a culture cannot allow it. And this is the message this verdict is sending. It says that black people are not safe in America. Even worse, it is saying that they do not belong. And as a person with white privilege, this verdict, while tragic, will never affect me personallyI am not the one being told that I can be killed at any time with impunity. So, if you feel tired of having to deal with the Trayvon Martin story, please remember that not all of us can afford the luxury of ignoring it.”image

In 1986, what Brent Staples said rang true to me. Today? I suspect it might have saved Trayvon Martin’s life still — you’re far less likely to murder a black guy in a suit than in a hoodie, even if you’re George Zimmerman. But does anyone really believe that a black man who gunned down a white teenager would have gone free? I don’t. And I have no doubt that a black man who gunned down a white guy in a suit would probably get the death sentence.

Given the nightmares a Harvard-educated, suit-wearing, polished & urbane black president ignites in the breasts of far too many Americans, I doubt that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin would have lived even in a suit. It would be wonderful to think so. I’d also like to believe that my early family weren’t on the wrong side of Archer Street in the Tulsa Race Riot.

Issues of race are worsening in America, even though — perhaps because? — we have a black president. As Peggy McIntosh said about the same time Staples published his essay, we need to unpack this nation’s knapsack of white privilege. And begin to heal America. Or put it this way: every yellow body bag with a 17-year-old boy’s dead body in it is the direct result of someone’s unpacked knapsack. And no whistling in the dark will bring him back ~

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